Conflict & Justice

Workers' voices grow louder on Labor Day in Egypt

CAIRO — Egyptian workers marked Labor Day today with celebrations as they marched from the headquarters of independent labor syndicates union to Tahrir Square then to the parliament, demanding social justice and chanting against the military rule.

As workers marked the second Labor Day celebration after a popular revolt toppling the country strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the labor movement still struggles under the military rule to find social justice.

According to a report released by Sons of the Land Human Rights Association, over 20,000 workers were fired from their jobs since last year for protesting, and 30 others committed suicide as they were unable to provide basic support for their families. So far in 2012, the country has witnessed 1,398 labor strikes in both government and private sectors, including those by teachers, doctors, public transportation workers, post offices workers, and public taxation authority workers.

"We are calling for social justice, to participate in the process of drafting the constitution, and to amend Syndicate Freedoms Law," Shaaban Hegaz, a worker in the Professional Training Center in Suez city, told GlobalPost.

"We have always been accused of destroying the production process and harming the economy due to our protests, but the people and the regime both do not understand that I'm the whole process. If I do not get my rights, the process is not complete," he added.

Shaaban, like many workers who marched to the parliament today, stressed that they will vote in the presidential elections for activist and lawyer Khalid Ali, who has long fought for labor rights. Ali and other labor leaders, like lawmaker Kamal Abou Eita (head of Labor Party Kamal Khalil) led chants in the march on Parliament.

One of the major demands of the labor movement before the revolution was setting a minimum and maximum wage, an issue that was raised in 2010 when a court ordered a minimum wage of LE1,200 for government employees.

However, the wage laws were never implemented. Now it’s up to parliament to decide how to proceed. Protesters are demanding a minimum and maximum wage, and criticize the legal system’s reluctance to execute the two-year-old court order.

Besides the growing wage gap that has workers angry and frustrated, some feel that workers and farmers are being kept out of the loop when it comes to making the laws that affect them and writing the constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, who controlled over 70 percent of the parliament, are accused of excluding many sectors of the Egyptian society while choosing members of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting the constitution. It seems they are also unwilling to work against the military’s rules on workers.

Last year, the military created a law criminalizing labor strikes that disturb production, the penalty of which could be years of prison or fines reaching thousands of pounds. Many workers were referred to military trials (as opposed to civilian ones) using this law, which was widely criticized as a double standard.

At today’s marches, a military general attempted to violently disperse protests at the Beshay Steel Factory, but ultimately failed.

"The military is using the rule of law to punish workers,” Abdel Fattah Shawara, the head of the farmers union in Gharbya Province, told GlobalPost. He pointed out that there were court orders obliging the government to dissolve the corrupt official labor union, long used by the Mubarak regime to oppress the working class.

Still, some have more optimistic ideas on the future of the parliament.

"We have so many reservations about the parliament and its performance, but it remains the only representative of the Egyptian people who voted for its members," said Mona Mina, high board member of the Doctors Syndicate, during today’s march.  

For more on workers' rights around the world, read GlobalPost's Special Report, "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights."